The value of machinima in teaching game design
Supporting machinima as a component of games design courses.
Eddie Duggan is a Senior Teaching Practitioner at the School of Arts & Humanities in University Campus, Suffolk, in South-East England.
He’s taught a variety of media courses, and now focuses on Game Design. Moviestorm forms a key part of the teaching method.
Early experiments with machinima as a teaching tool
“The best way to illustrate how Moviestorm fits in with the current curriculum is to explain how we got to where we are,” explains Eddie. “I had worked on several undergraduate courses before becoming a dedicated member of the Computer Games Design team. I introduced students to the concept of machinima for several years on a largely theoretical Media Studies course. It was interesting to me because it was an example of people using technology—computer games—to do something subversive. Games give users a cheap means of access to a networked, multiuser 3D environment which can be modified with custom content, and they also provide the means for players to record what they do in those environments and make those recordings available to others. Although users in the early days were capturing tournament play, speed runs, etc., and could only share recordings with others for playback as demos in the game engine, things began to evolve in interesting ways when users stopped simply playing the game as a game, but began to create what were effectively dramatic performance pieces which were recorded and made available for others. Making these pieces available as standalone works in the form of video files increased the audience reach, and when those rehearsed and scripted pieces were given post-production treatment with video editing tools, sound effects and even dialogue, a new media form was available: machinima.
“It didn’t take long before I realised that talking about the theory, and showing Diary of a Camper and other early works was a bit of a cop-out: while the concept of machinima seemed to suggest that a veritable Aladdin’s cave of potential was available for the cost of a game, the course actually stopped short of going into that cave and sharing the treasures. I started to think that we should have a practical machinima course. The only problem was, I was going to have to be the one do it, so I actually had to find out how to practice what I had been preaching. I’d been doing some research into what machinima tools I could use and I had discovered Fountainhead’s Machinimation which existed in various forms back then. The demo release of version 1 included the Quake III engine and was, in fact, a Quake III mod that had been created by Fountainhead as a machinima production tool.
“While I was getting to grips with this, with no support community and very little documentation, I heard about a machinima event in Norwich. This turned out to be Matt Kelland talking about machinima, and how he and a couple of others had developed Moviestorm. After meeting Matt, I participated in one of the Moviestorm testing events. The software seemed perfect for what I was trying to do: give students reasonably intuitive, easy-to-use, software that would let them make machinima. The icing on the cake was the fact that it had automatic lip synching! It could do so much more than Machinimation and was far less complicated than using Matinee in UT2004, so it was the perfect tool for the course.”
Eddie was one of the first people to adopt Moviestorm as a teaching tool, and University Campus Suffolk became the first institution to purchase a multi-user educational license. Moviestorm worked closely with Eddie to see how he used it, and on several occasions, we visited the campus to meet with the students and lecture to them on using machinima.
Using animation in a games design course
Currently, Eddie introduces students to Moviestorm in the second year. In previous years, it formed part of a third year Machinima module, but this has now been replaced by a new second level module, called Anymation, in which students get to create 2D and 3D animation. The Anymation module provides a workshop environment that allows students to explore various animation techniques with a range of software applications. Anymation students now work on 2D animation in the first semester and machinima in the second.
By the time the games design students get to the end of the second year of their course, they will have gained experience with a wide range of tools and techniques, including, for example, games design theory, ActionScript, mobile development, 3D modelling with 3DS Max, development in Unity, working in UDK, scrum and agile project management techniques, as well as 2D animation and machinima in the Anymation module. This should ensure they are really well prepared to select the tool chain and techniques needed to undertake their final year work.
Eddie is hoping to see some interesting work coming from this approach. “Hopefully, we’ll see some third year machinima projects emerging out of the curriculum changes, whether it’s in the form of a cut scene for a game created in UDK, or in the form of a free-standing narrative piece, created in a game engine or in Moviestorm.”
Reactions to Moviestorm
Eddie notes that not all students responded well to Moviestorm. “There have been a few students with a hard-core focus on creating machinima with specific 3D game engines, or with high-end applications like 3DS Max and Mudbox, who see Moviestorm as a bit of a “toy” (which, of course, in the best definition of the term, is exactly what it is) and who don’t try to see beyond their initial prejudices to find out what kind of high end results can be obtained with sustained and focussed development work with custom assets in the form of textures and models and attention to lighting and audio design.”
It was also intimidating to some. Eddie showed his students work such as IceAxe’s Clockwork or Chat Noir Studios’ Death in Venice. Although these films look extremely impressive, some students were concerned that they wouldn’t be able to develop the necessary skills in the time available for a project, or did not feel prepared to put in the effort required to achieve a particular effect. “When we do have problems,” he comments, “it’s usually something to do with the modding pipeline.”
However, the majority of students liked it. “Most of the students who choose to use Moviestorm tend to enjoy it, and are satisfied with its core out-of-the-box functionality. In terms of ease-of-use, I think it’s easy to get started with Moviestorm as a beginner. The interface is designed as metaphor for the film production process, so students can quickly get to grips with the overall process and readily get the hang of switching between different modes or views. For those with more advanced skills, the options are available to bring in custom content, such as 3d models of simple static objects, or image files to use as textures, and while the possibilities for even more advanced customisation exists, the processes become much more complex (for example, creating a prop that a puppet can manipulate). But Moviestorm is versatile enough to provide core machinima functionality for productions created by several people with a lot of experience in using the Moviestorm pipeline for modding, as well as being well suited for use in a solo project by someone who may have no previous experience of machinima or of working in a 3D environment at all.”
Eddie is still very keen to continue using Moviestorm for his own work as well as teaching. “Moviestorm is great fun to use, and I enjoy using it for personal projects. Since I’ve been using Moviestorm, my interest in machinima and my knowledge of the medium have developed considerably. My interests and my tastes have always been quite broad and varied—I think “inclusive” is the term du jour—so I’m quite open to a wide range of texts and media. So much so that I was actually a bit taken aback when I found that one of my machinima pieces had been rejected from an film exhibition because it looked too much like a game! I’ve come a long way with machinima: from raising awareness of machinima as a concept to developing a practical machinima module. I also had to learn how to actually do it in order to teach the practical course, this led to me making a piece that was screened at the MaMachinima International Festival in Amsterdam (2011) and has also been shown at an Exploding Cinema event in London (2012). I couldn’t have done this without Moviestorm.”
Most importantly, though, Moviestorm provides an essential tool for his students. “I also think it’s great to be able to use it as part of the course. We need a tool with the functionality Moviestorm offers, but it’s also something of a luxury to have software that is simple to use and provides quick results.”
The Waterfront Games Channel: UCS student work on Vimeo
Like Bits And Stuff: Eddie’s blog
Philip Jackson: Student Moviestorm projects at UCS